As long as there have been organized sports in the United States, they have walked hand-in-hand with empire. From the beginning, the message was that men should be men, girls submissive, and war is good. In the late 19th century, empire was on the march, with the US invading the Philippines, Latin America and the Caribbean. The values of sports were tied to ideas about spreading Christianity by force and conquering other lands. An early baseball owners, Albert Spalding — as in Spalding sporting goods — spoke proudly about offering a helping hand for US empire, writing, “Baseball has proudly followed the flag.” It followed the flag to the Hawaiian islands, and at once supplanted every other form of athletics. It followed the flag to the Philippines, to Puerto Rico and to Cuba. Wherever a ship floating the stars and stripes finds anchorage today, somewhere on a nearby shore, the American national game is in play.
While the intertwining of sports and empire is stated less crudely today, it’s no less apparent. No sport embodies this better than NFL football. One can remember George Carlin who said, “In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.”
The militarization of sports culture might be even funnier if so many guys didn’t take it literally. When you stop and think about just how militarized sports culture has become, it’s downright bizarre. And it’s not just the National Football League. I went to a baseball game a few years back, and it turned out I was also attending something called Military Appreciation Night. Before the opening pitch, with George W. Bush in attendance, a group of marines were sworn in at home plate. Then the announcer came over the PA and said: “For those of you in the audience who also want a career in the military, please visit the appropriate kiosk.”
Sports media guardians often tell us — usually when a player speaks out — that sports and politics should never mix. But if going to war isn’t political, then nothing is. And yet the mix of sports and politics is made to appear natural, as if it’s just the way things are. In this hyper-masculine sports culture, we are left with a glamorized view of militarism and violence that conceals the costs and consequences of a fictionalized ideal of male invulnerability.
In the militarized spectacle of football, especially, there’s no room for the statistical fact that this sport takes a terrible toll on the human body. The average NFL career is three and a half years and the average player will die 20 years sooner than the rest of the population. I’ve had players tell me that to play professional football is to skip middle age. I’ve been to retirement dinners and seen guys who aren’t much older than me walking with canes. All of which raises the question: Does the cartoon version of violence in sports culture sanitize and lie about the real-life consequences of violence? And most importantly, if sports glamorizes war, does football, as entertaining as it can be, act as a form of propaganda?
Remember Pat Tillman
The above is a question Pat Tillman would have been very interested in. In 2001, Tillman was coming off the best year of his career. He was picked for Sports Illustrated’s All-Pro Team and had just turned down a $9-million free agent contract to stay with the Arizona Cardinals. Pat Tillman was tough, and he was loyal. He was a coach’s dream. Then came 9/11. Out of respect for the unfolding tragedy, the NFL postponed a week of games. But Tillman went further than that. He joined the Army Rangers. This was the real deal, a pro football player giving up a lucrative career to serve his country in the field of battle.
22 months after enlisting, Pat Tillman was dead. His memorial service was aired on national television. The Army awarded him a Silver Star for his “gallantry in action against an armed enemy.” They said Tillman’s convoy had been ambushed in Afghanistan. They said Tillman charged up a hill to protect his men but was shot down by the Taliban. That was the official story — and It was a lie.
Since the truth didn’t fit into the dominant narrative, it was decided the truth should be concealed. The worst part about all of this was that it hid what might be the most important part of the story: that while he was stationed in Iraq in 2003, Tillman had turned against the war.
As John Krakauer, the bestselling author of the book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, said, “He thought the war was illegal. He thought it was a mistake. He thought it was going to be a disaster. And in the Army, you’re not supposed to talk about that. You’re not supposed to talk politics. And Pat didn’t shut up. He told everyone he encountered, ‘This war is illegal as hell.’”
In fact, when Tillman was redeployed to Afghanistan in 2004, he began reading Noam Chomsky. Tillman told his mother, Mary, he wanted to meet Chomsky in person after he returned to the United States. The misrepresentation of Tillman’s story vividly exposes a fault line in the political mythology of sport. It shows how the “real man” myth reinforced in sports culture often works to marginalize actual men, whose true acts of courage — such as standing up to the government — may be more admirable than the fictional half-truths assigned to them by the media–sports complex.
This is exactly what happened recently when Fox NFL Sunday commemorated Veterans’ Day by broadcasting from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and proceeded to pay tribute to Pat Tillman without even hinting at the more complicated facts of his story — even though his family has been fighting for years to make these facts known. Rather than bothering to mention that Tillman had turned against the war, the Fox commentators, dressed in full camouflage, used his life and death to promote war.
For opponents of the priorities of empire, we should hold Pat Tillman’s story close to heart. We shouldn’t reject sports, we should fight to reclaim them. Only by fighting to reclaim them from those in power who would pump politics through their play, can we challenge sports to change. I don’t want war in my sports. Fighting to make sports war-free is about fighting the war agenda itself.
This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sports: Views from Left Field).